Baby was a black sheep (but possibly isn’t any more)

I really, really, really like Patti Smith. I have immense respect for her and for the body of work she’s produced over the years. Discovering Horses and Rock’N’Roll Nigger and Birdland and her poems at the age of 17 was like a revelation, the idea that rock music could be as thrillingly cerebral and literate as it could be viscerally thrilling. In short, I think she’s pretty fucken awesome and generally spot on about stuff.

But this kinda shits me. Not because I think she’s necessarily wrong – I haven’t really been in New York for long enough to say if she’s right or wrong, to be honest, although it does appear to me that there are plenty of artists surviving and doing really interesting work in the process. Even if Manhattan is prohibitively expensive – albeit less so these days than a couple of years ago – there’s plenty of great stuff happening in Brooklyn and, no doubt, elsewhere.

No, it annoys me for two other reasons. One, it smacks of an attitude that I’ve noticed a bit here – that NYC was waaaaay better back in the day and today’s city is a pale, commercialised imitation of the place in its artistic glory days. You get a similar thing in Melbourne. It usually comes from people about Patti’s age, who don’t actually get out a whole lot these days to see new art or bands or theatre or whatever. Cities ebb and flow. Things will never be the same as they were in 1975, but that doesn’t mean that they’re better or worse. They’re just different.

And two, even if she is right on the first point, it annoys me because it’s defeatist. I started a course a few years back – a diploma in professional writing and editing at the CAE. It had its moments – some of the editing stuff was useful, in a deathly dull way, and the creative classes bulldozed me into finishing about three-quarters of a novel before deciding it wasn’t gonna fly and consigning it to the drawer, where it remains (for now, at least). But I eventually lost interest for a variety of reasons, one of which is relevant here.

One of the things we had to do was a kind of industry class. The idea was that it was meant to introduce you to various aspects of the publishing industry, but what it actually consisted of was a weekly gloom-and-doom session, where an endless succession of people would come and tell us about how wonderful their particular job was, and how lucky they were to have it, and how they wouldn’t like to be starting out today, and how everything’s so difficult, and how 90% of us were going to end up on the dole, and etc.

I eventually stopped attending because the whole thing shat me so much. Nothing is easy. If I didn’t think I’d be able to get some sort of editing job, I’d never have done the course in the first place. I had to go to India to get said job, but so it goes.

And I can’t imagine life for Patti Smith was particularly easy when she moved to NYC in 1967.In fact, I *know* it wasn’t, because I’ve heard her music and read two biographies. It was a struggle.

Patti and Robert, when it was OK to struggle in NYC

And it’s a struggle now. Thank god Leila and I have some savings, otherwise we’d be royally and comprehensively fucked. We may still be.

But that’s not the point. Of course it’s hard to be an artist or a writer here. But it’s hard everywhere. If and when I leave NYC, it’ll be on my own terms. If I fail, I fail. That’s fine. But I won’t be defeated or give up. In fact, I had some of Patti Smith’s words in my head when I first came here last year:

“And I got nothin’ to hide here save desire/And I’m gonna go, I’m gonna get out of here/I’m gonna get out of here, I’m gonna get on that train/I’m gonna go on that train and go to New York City/I’m gonna be somebody, I’m gonna get on that train, go to New York City/I’m gonna be so bad I’m gonna be a big star and I will never return/Never return, no, never return, to burn out in this piss factory/And I will travel light.

Oh, watch me now.”

(Please note: I’m not going to be a big star. But you get the idea.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *